Reading Tip: ‘The Book That Would Not Die’

Donna Gabaccia reflects on the reception of William Foote Whyte’s famous Street Corner Society at the Migrant Knowledge blog:

William Foote Whyte’s study of Italian immigrants in the North End of Boston was not particularly successful after its release in 1943. In the years after 1970, though, Street Corner Society garnered great success and became, in the words of its author, “the book that would not die.” Paradoxically, specialists in Italian American studies found little to love in the book. Here I argue that a hidden history of gender and ethnic dynamics in the academic production of knowledge can explain the paradox. In the book’s second edition, revised and expanded, Whyte’s ethnographic methods, his penchant for story-telling, and his personal reflections on research provided beginning students in sociology an accessible introduction to qualitative methods in an increasingly quantitative discipline. Specialists, by contrast, saw Whyte choosing to study a depression-era immigrant community in Boston’s North End not out of any interest in immigration or Italian immigrants but as a typical and conveniently located slum—a foil for dated theoretical debates.

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Political Interpretations of Knowledge in Colonial Contexts

Attractive classroom scene

In the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of the “knowledge society” (Wissensgesellschaft ) rapidly gained in popularity among social scientists and politicians in Western countries.1 The concept referred to a socioeconomic system that was no longer organized around the manufacture of material—especially industrial—goods but instead around the production of knowledge, expertise, and highly specialized skills. The prominence of this perspective was strongly influenced by the experience of de-industrialization in Western Europe and North America in the last third of the twentieth century, with former sites of industrial production being dismantled and the so-called service sector rapidly gaining in importance. Closely linked to emphasis on the relevance of knowledge in the twenty-first century was concern with educational models that seemed to be outdated because they were rooted in the industrial paradigm of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was in this context that school and university curricula were revised and “modernized” so that they would match the technological demands of postindustrial societies. These efforts were driven by the understanding that the international standing of formerly industrial countries and regions depended on their ability to supply and apply the skills and expertise needed to compete in an increasingly global economy.

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History of Knowledge and Contemporary Discourse on Science

The polarizing contemporary debate on science in the United States could be extraordinarily interesting for historians of knowledge, if it were occurring in the past. Still, if we could divert our attention from the news for a moment, we might find it offers some food for thought.

In the midst of the current conversation, which is experiencing renewed fervor under the new administration, the Twitterverse is exploding with talk of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fact-based journalism,” “fake news,” and “lies.” This rhetoric encompasses not just climate science but also everyday policy-making and “s/he said” – “s/he said” arguments. It is easy to get caught up in this conversation, whose ideological and epistemological battle lines seem so clearly drawn, but one thing gets lost—most of the time, anyway.

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